In anticipation of the arrival of my blu-ray copy of Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest film “Kotoko”, I decided to check out Hajime Ohata’s debut feature “Henge” which has been getting a lot of festival buzz due to its similarities to Tsukamoto’s work particularly his debut feature “Tetsuo”.
When “Henge” begins, we are introduced to married couple Yoshiaki and Keiko, who are going through a tough time due to Yoshiaki’s recent stay at a mental institution after having a breakdown of some sort. While no longer institutionalized, Yoshiaki is still suffering regular seizures around once in every three days. They seem to attack totally at random and can happen at any time, so Yoshiaki is still being constantly monitored by a medical team. In his past life Yoshiaki was himself a surgeon, and even helped train the staff looking after him while at medical school, so the doctors are very respectful of him even though they are unsure about his condition and whether or not it is mental in nature. Sadly, the seizures start to become more frequent and a lot more violent, and it looks apparent that Yoshiaki may have to be hospitalized again. His poor wife Keiko can only watch helplessly as the man she loves is being torn apart from the inside, but what is worse is the fact that she has become an accidental victim twice during her husband’s attacks, leaving her face significantly bruised. One day when Keiko questions her husband what it feels like before an attack, he responds by saying it is like there are bugs in his head trying to take over his mind. It sounds like an odd thing to say but it appears there may be more truth to it then everyone thinks because as the seizures continue to intensify, Yoshiaki finds his body transforming into something else entirely. He appears to be turning into some kind of monster, one with incredible power, but is it at the risk of losing his humanity entirely. After erratically screaming words of a dead language in a voice that is not his own, Keiko realizes that this is the last straw and agrees for Yoshiaki to be hospitalized again in an attempt to find out exactly what is wrong with her husband once and for all.
While “Henge” is definitely what you would call a “monster” movie, it’s really about the love between a husband and wife who are willing to do anything for the other and to be together forever. The film is more about an internalized conflict dealing with the family issues as opposed to the larger issues the world may face because of the monster within Yoshiaki. This is the main strength of the film because the relationship between the married couple is so strong and is presented in a way that it is even getting stronger throughout this entire ordeal. It is obvious that “Henge” was shot on quite a limited budget with the majority of the film taking place in the couple’s apartment, but the atmosphere and dread that director Ohata creates in this environment is amazing. Helping with the creation of this atmosphere is Hiroyuki Nagashima’s music score which is always in the background during the drama just creating this intense feeling of unease. Interestingly when the film starts and the score kicks in, it is very reminiscent to the John Carpenter scores of the 1980’s which I immediately responded to.
“Henge” is a very short film running only 54 minutes, but within that timeframe so much happens and the experience becomes a very emotional one mainly thanks to the main central performances. Kazunari Aizawa gives a wonderfully physical performance as Yoshiaki and is especially frightening during the man’s seizures. He really portrays a Jekyll and Hyde like persona with him being very charming and thoughtful when he is himself, but is fully able to let the demon out when his transformation occurs. However it is really Aki Morita’s film as she is sensational as the worried wife Keiko. The amount of emotion and confusion she shows through her eyes is amazing, this is a woman that does not know what the right thing to do is but she does not want to let down her man. There is a moment later in the film when her persona changes dramatically and Keiko becomes a predator of sorts. It is such a change from the meek wife at the start of the film, but Morita really pulls off the transformation beautifully, particularly because it is obvious that she doesn’t like what she is doing and is only doing it for love. That is the big thing about “Henge”, the motivation behind the characters ultimately revolves around the love they have for one another. It is interesting that the film is so often mentioned in the same sentence as Shinya Tsukamoto’s work, and I do understand that the “body horror” element of the film is indeed similar, but where the film goes with it is almost the opposite as what Tsukamoto would explore. He often uses his characters to look at isolation and being alone in the metropolis of the world today where technology plays such a vital role, where as Hajime Ohata has gone the opposite route with his characters going within themselves and realizing that their love for each other is what gives them strength to survive.
Visually, also, the film is nothing like Tsukamoto’s manic but brilliant work. Ohata and his cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya have chosen to shoot the film in a very flat and plain manner, which is not a negative at all, it gives the story and emotion the chance to be the highlight of the film rather than its look. In fact the director it seemed to be similar to was not Tsukamoto but rather Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Also for a digitally shot film, they have done an excellent job of disguising its deficiencies and given “Henge” a much richer look.
For monster fans, the special effects work is of the practical variety and consists of a lot of rubber, which admittedly does look a little hokey in some shots, but still this is preferable than a CGI creation that lacks weight. Smartly until the finale, we are only witness to small parts of the transformation like an arm or a leg, and even when Yoshiaki does transform fully, he is often bathed in dark shadow hiding a lot of the detail, which works better because it makes us use our imagination more as to what he really looks like. Speaking of CGI, one of the flaws of “Henge” is the use of CGI blood which I am never a fan of, and although I hate the fact that it has been used here, it isn’t as bad as it could have been.
The finale of “Henge” is going to be massively divisive and let me be up front and say that I hated the end of this film. Ohata brilliantly builds the tension and emotion of the film for its entirety and I was hooked on the internal drama of love being told, almost like a “Beauty and the Beast” for the new millennium, but when Ohata opened up the film and let the outside world play a role in the film, it totally lost me. The film becomes something else entirely and I did not respond to it at all. I understand that a lot of people are going to find the ending exhilarating and incredibly brave, but for me, I thought it was ridiculous and almost undid all of the good that came before it. The final five to ten minutes where painful and personally I thought it went against everything else before it. I admit that I have never been a fan of the “sub-genre” this film ends up closing in, but it just made the film feel really cheap.
Overall, with the exception of the terrible finale, I found “Henge” (which apparently will have the English title of “Metamorphosis”) to be a richly rewarding experience. I really loved the fact that the main theme of the film was about love and it looked at just how far a couple would go to be together and to be happy. Sure at the end of the day it is a monster film, but it is a monster film with heart. While the film obviously had a small budget, director Ohata has used what he did have brilliantly and has made a film that looks above its means. Hopefully this is the start of a long career for Hajime Ohata because it is obvious that the man has talent and a distinct cinematic voice and I look forward to seeing what he produces next. His debut feature “Henge” is sure to get him a lot of notice in both Japan and the rest of the world and I do recommend it, but man, that finale…